The Happy Trail

Thinking about HIV/AIDS


With the recent exhibit Art AIDS America at the Tacoma Art Museum and the current exhibit Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture in Collins Memorial Library, students may be wondering: why AIDS? Why now?

The response to that question should be: why not?

At no point since its first documented appearance has AIDS disappeared. The current consensus in the medical community is that HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) first passed from chimpanzees to humans when infected blood came into contact with bush hunters in Central Africa; from then, the disease was sexually transmitted to other people, though it was years (possibly up to a century) before the disease spread to the United States and was formally recognized in 1981.

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the final stage of HIV when the immune system is so damaged that opportunistic infections can take hold. At this point, life expectancy without treatment drops to one to three years. Its high mortality rate made it the source of widespread fear during the 1980s.

HIV can only be spread when certain infected bodily fluids such as blood, sexual fluids and breast milk come into contact with another person’s mucus membranes. Saliva and regular physical contact cannot transmit the infection, though in the 1980s and to an extent through today, the fear of contraction was so great that the stigma characterized those infected as lepers. Much of the HIV/AIDS-related art of the 1980s depicts this phenomenon of isolation and ostracization.

The highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the United States have historically occurred in men who have sex with men (MSM), and the disease was first recognized in gay men. Not only did the ignorance and misunderstandings regarding HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s create a resurgence in homophobia, but also caused a further increase in contraction rates among MSM as the stigma rose, according to Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS at New York University. This continues to affect all MSM, but especially poor MSM and MSM of color.

While no cure for HIV/AIDS currently exists, medical researchers have been developing treatments and searching for a cure since the disease first appeared. Today, there are treatments that can extend the life of a person with HIV to equal that of someone without HIV, and even those whose infections have progressed to AIDS can live for many years. Additionally, while there is no vaccine, there are preventative medications and measures that can be taken by those who are at high risk of contracting HIV.

HIV/AIDS can be an uncomfortable topic to address, which makes it all the more important to talk about. While it has not affected the current generation of students as much as it did the last, we must not forget or ignore the millions who have lost their lives. Above that, we must not forget the 35 million people who are living with HIV/AIDS globally.

For students who are interested in viewing art on campus on the topic of HIV/AIDS, the Surviving and Thriving exhibit will be in Collins Memorial Library until March 14. In late February and early March, the Puget Sound theater department will be putting on a production of RENT.